Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Walter Johnson: Reconsidering the Links Between Slavery and Capitalism

Over at the blog of The Nation, Robin Einhorn reviews Walter Johnson's book River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.  Johnson argues that the antebellum South was wealthy and capitalist.  In fact, as Einhorn summarizes Johnson, the South had "more capital invested in enslaved African-Americans than in railroad and industrial assets combined." Johnson also reminds us that the success of northern industry was directly connected to the products produced by slave labor.  In the end, he concludes that there would be no 19th century capitalism without slavery and no 19th century slavery without capitalism.

Here is a taste of Einhorn's review:

But the imperial fantasies that interest Johnson had nothing to do with the North. On the contrary, he urges us to stop thinking of the antebellum South with reference to the Civil War—as we do when we call it “the South” and labeling the period “antebellum.” This way of thinking, he argues, blinds us to the spectacle of what actually happened in the Cotton Kingdom. Freeing ourselves from the “anachronistic spatial frames and teleological narratives” imposed by the Civil War enables us to see that for the Mississippi Valley slaveholders, Cuba felt closer to home than Virginia, and Nicaraguan political conflicts were more relevant than “Bleeding Kansas.” On what we know to be the eve of their destruction, the states of the Cotton Kingdom were contemplating a magnificent destiny—or, in Johnson’s words, a “millennial vision of a pro-slavery future.”

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